"Music is the heart of Mali," says Bassekou Kouyate. "A Mali without music is unimaginable. If you stop the music, you will kill the whole country. Music has always been everywhere for us. It is our history and our culture, the way we tell stories, the way we celebrate and give thanks for our lives."
Kouyate is a virtuoso of the ngoni (a simple wood and hide lute) who hails from the southern town of Garana. He is also a proud ambassador for the deep and diverse musical heritage of his home country. Today he is sitting backstage at the Barbican in central London, preparing for a long-planned concert featuring himself and two acts from the north: the Tuareg band Tamikrest and the Songhai guitarist Sidi Touré.
The show ties in perfectly with the release of his new album Jama Ko. Kouyate explains that the record's title means "large gathering of people". However, in light of the conflict now gripping Mali, such festive get-togethers have been few and far between in recent months.
"Right now the whole country is in a critical situation," Kouyate says. "In the north, things are very bad. There is fighting and people are living day to day, struggling to feed their children. They are really suffering. In the south people are scared for the future and hoping that things will change. Life is nothing like it used to be. There are soldiers on the street and people are scared to go out. Everything is very quiet. We are all hoping that the arrival of the French forces will change things and that we will be able to get back to normal some time soon."
The roots of Mali's current situation stretch back almost 100 years. Relations between the Tuareg people of the north and the rest of the country have been punctuated with a series of insurgencies since 1916. In January 2012, these frictions escalated into another armed conflict in the Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal regions. Furious at the government's perceived lack of response, the Malian military, under the leadership of Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, launched a full-scale coup in the capital in March, ousting the then-president Amadou Toumani Touré.
Jama Ko did not start out with a particular political mission. However, unforeseen circumstances have led to it taking on a far greater significance than was originally intended. "We were recording the day the coup started in Bamako," explains Kouyate. "By the time we left the studio, all the bridges and roads were closed and everything was in a state of chaos. The next day we had to find somewhere else to work. It wasn't easy, but we had to keep on going."
Produced by Howard Bilerman, who has previously worked with Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Jama Ko is a densely layered and thrilling recording. Brought to western shores via the slave trade back in the 17th century, traditional music styles from the southern regions of Mali are often cited as direct progenitors of the Delta blues. Meanwhile, the ngoni is widely agreed to be a not so distant ancestor to the banjo. Both theories become all the more persuasive after hearing Kouyate's powerful, supple and delicately intricate playing.
Along with his band Ngoni Ba, which includes his two sons and wife, Kouyate blends both forward and outward-looking influences with Mali's age-old musical traditions. His 2007 debut Segu Blue received glowing reviews and 2011's I Speak Fula picked up a well-deserved Grammy nomination. However, by comparison Jama Ko appears more urgent and impassioned. Kouyate's ngoni is newly amplified, but it's the defiant quality of the songs that really shine though. From the scorching critique of the military takeover Ne Me Fatigue Pas to the title track's call for a return to Mali's time-honoured culture of respect and tolerance, each song reflects the increasingly fraught circumstances under which it was created.
In the early stages of the record's evolution, the Malian army concentrated its efforts on securing its position in the capital. This had the knock-on effect of leaving the way clear for rebel forces to take control of the north. By April, revolutionary leaders announced the north's secession and the foundation of a new state that would be known as Azawad. However, in order to make such rapid advances, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad had allied itself with a ragtag collection of militant Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine and the Al Qaeda offshoot Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. Shortly after the announcement, fissures in the alliance began to grow. Eventually the Islamist forces turned on the Tuareg separatists, taking over leadership of the north and attempting to institute a hardline version of Sharia across the entire territory.
Some 90 per cent of Malians are Muslim and the national interpretation of Islam has typically been moderate, tolerant and inclusive. However, the new, radical strand that has been enforced in the north has brought with it shocking levels of violence against ordinary citizens. In addition, there have been a series of attacks upon the nation's culture.
The leader of Ansar Dine, Iyad Ag Ghaly, once wrote songs himself. He is also reported to have counted several Tuareg musicians among his personal friends. Nowadays, his perspective on the arts is somewhat less enthusiastic. Despite the northern regions being home to world-renowned artists such as Tinariwen and the late king of African blues Ali Farka Touré, Ghaly's forces banned music entirely. Festivals have been cancelled, performers threatened and their instruments burnt in the streets.
"That has nothing to do with religion. It is just about power," says Kouyate. "These people want to destroy everything: human rights, culture, music, people's lives. That cannot be allowed to happen. It is not what the majority of people want. These events have affected life everywhere. Bamako is a long way away, yet people are not leaving their homes. The economy is destroyed and the government is discouraging events that will draw large crowds because of their potential for bombings or other attacks."
Given this state of affairs, it is understandable that Kouyate should be happy to be on the road. However, these feelings are not born of a desire to avoid the difficulties facing his home. Instead, he sees this as the perfect point to present to the world an album and a tour that represents what he believes to be "the true spirit of Mali".
"In spite of everything," Kouyate says, "this is still a good time for Malian music. In fact it is now more important than ever for us to show the rest of the world what we can do and what our country is all about. No matter who you are, music can make your life better. Listening to it can take all your stresses away and make all your troubles disappear. In Mali, we will need to remember that."
Dave Stelfox is a regular contributor to The Review.